TORONTO – “You’re a greasy rat, kid.”
Michael Bunting — the Toronto Maple Leafs’ overnight pre-season phenom — had his rinkside interview interrupted Wednesday when teammate Kurtis Gabriel walked into the frame and barked that compliment in his ear.
Bunting later admitted the KG camera bomb startled him:
Bunting’s projected opening night centreman, John Tavares, chuckled at the scene.
“I like to dress it up a little more,” Tavares smiled.
Then the captain broke down the hockey benefits of employing a “greasy rat” like Scarborough’s finest.
Extremely determined. Great awareness on the ice. Knows how to complement elite players. Finds a way to make an impact on the game. Good hands and perfect timing.
“He’s been kind of a late bloomer,” Tavares went on. “Someone who’s had to prove a lot of people wrong and just always had that attitude of finding a way.”
The Bunting Way is to impress enough in his minutes during exhibition that he’s snatched up a top-six role like a rat does cheese.
The Calder-eligible 26-year-old (wink) scored last Saturday in his first dress rehearsal as a Leaf, erupted for a hat trick in Ottawa Wednesday, then deflected the game-winner off a David Kämpf pass in Friday’s Blue vs. White exhibition at Scotiabank Arena.
All Bunting does is score, apparently. And crawl under his opponents’ skin.
“He certainly is a guy that makes no friends on the ice,” says coach Sheldon Keefe, a fan of Bunting’s since he had him in the Soo.
“Just in terms of the hunger and the competitiveness he has around the net, because he’s always looking to get an edge on you. I’m really happy that he’s gotten the results that he’s gotten here in the first two games. It allows his confidence to grow, allows him to settle in here with us.”
The edge that the left winger has carried from AA minor hockey in the Greater Toronto Hockey League to a stint in the ECHL to a little UFA bidding war in his mid-20s, Bunting says it’s how he forces himself into the game.
“Getting the other team after me or to get in their head, I feel like that’s when I’m playing my best. When they’re chasing after me and not worried about the game, that helps us out. So, I don’t mind playing that role,” Bunting said.
“The road I took to get here isn’t the normal one everybody takes, so I take pride in that and I (embrace) it every day. You can’t take this thing for granted; it can go just as fast as it can come. You appreciate it a little bit more (because) it did take a little bit for me to get here. It has been a grind.”
The new grinder has bonded with veteran Wayne Simmonds over their similar paths to the show — “Scarborough sticks together,” Simmonds asserts of the mindset in the eastern part of Toronto — and he rhymes off Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi and Wendel Clark as boyhood role models.
“He’s just got a chip on his shoulder, in terms of how he’s how he’s come up through the hockey ranks,” Keefe said. “He plays with a lot to prove every night and he’s out there to try to make the best of every opportunity he can. And I like those qualities about him. That’s what I think makes you believe a player like him always has a chance, and here he is in the NHL.
“Those are the kind of guys you don’t want to bet against.”
My best guess at Toronto’s Opening Night lineup
Health willing, of course…
Keefe extension kept hush-hush
Curious that the Maple Leafs did not announce head coach Sheldon Keefe’s two-year contract extension when it was signed.
Appearing on Tim & Friends Friday, GM Kyle Dubas confirmed that the deal was signed off on early in the summer, yet news didn’t make the rounds until Thursday night — hours before Keefe’s starring turn in Amazon’s All or Nothing series.
“Whenever there’s a big disappointment we encounter, that always brings out the best in him as a coach,” Dubas said of Keefe. “He’s a person that thrives in situations like this.
“It’s a great thing for our organization.”
So why no official announcement?
“That’s not my department,” Keefe replied Friday night.
“It’s great for my family, of course. But it hasn’t changed anything in terms of my approach or anything like that. If anything, it just allows me to do my job as best I can without any other distractions.”
Matthews progressing just fine
Matthews’ recovering wrist is progressing well, and the star centre participated in three half-practices with linemates this week.
That said, he’s not yet ready for contact. If he squeezes into an exhibition game, it’ll be Toronto’s final one, Oct. 9 at home to Ottawa. That’s intended to be the dress rehearsal for the real NHL group.
“It’s about building up the strength in the wrist to the point that he’s confident in receiving passes, leaning into shots, and of course (taking) faceoffs and contact. The fact we’ve seen him out every single day with no setbacks is a good thing,” Keefe said.
New guy Nick Ritchie appears to have drawn the long straw in camp. The bruising left winger says he’s never skated with a duo as dynamic as Marner and Matthews.
“These are some of the most skilled guys in the league, and it’s cool to get to be on the same ice as them and learn things from them,” Ritchie said.
While the first talking point with Ritchie is his sturdy frame (six-foot-three, 236 pounds) and bruising style of play, his coach sees another reason for inserting him alongside his most productive forwards.
“You’re going to be surprised with how good his hands are, how good his shot is, how good he is at making plays in tight spaces,” Keefe said.
Marner approves crackdown on cross-checking
For years, the Maple Leafs have had a difficult time drawing penalties. Last season, the club ranked just 26th overall in the category, drawing 3.08 penalties per 60 minutes.
Not good enough for a group that is supposed to put away opponents on the power play.
It will be interesting to see if the NHL’s stricter enforcement of cross-checking either (a) gives the Leafs more confidence driving to the net or (b) results in a few more power plays.
Mitch Marner is a fan.
“Yeah, I think it’s good. It should be fair. You go into a corner, you don’t need to have a guy just abusing your back with crosschecks, so I think it should be a penalty,” Marner said.
“Also, net-front-wise, I think it’s dangerous. Guys are strong and can stand on their skates, but if a guy crosschecks you while you’re leaning over trying to tip a puck, you’re not going to stay up on your feet every single time that happens. So you’ve seen people eating pucks in the back of the neck, heads and stuff like that. The league thought it was a thing they needed to change, so we’ll see how it goes.”
A pretty pass from Nick Ritchie and an even prettier finish by Mitch Marner. pic.twitter.com/phLU9wtrBc
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 1, 2021
One-Timers: Expect significant cuts to Toronto’s bloated camp roster after its preseason back-to-back Monday and Tuesday . If you noticed white Band-Aids pasted to Leafs’ foreheads during Friday’s Blue vs. White game, there’s a reason. Those absorbant patches are being used by the Leafs for sweat and hydration analysis during camp. Sports science! … Toronto signed undrafted free-agent forward Braeden Kressler to a three-year entry level contract Friday evening. Kressler put up nine goals and 18 points in 46 games for the OHL’s Flint Firebirds in 2019-20 but did not play in 2020-21 due to the pandemic . Defence prospect Teemu Kivihalme, 26, was placed on waivers Friday; he’s eligible to be claimed before 2 p.m. ET Saturday…. Do the Maple Leafs offer Josh Ho-Sang (PTO) an AHL contract in order to avoid the waiver wire with a talent who has impressed at camp?